Brainstorming Is Not Very Creative
Brainstorming is great fun, good for team building and boosting self-esteem. However, it does fail in one rather important way. It is not very good at providing you with creative ideas. It is even worse if you want a highly creative idea to implement. Why is this the case?
Before we go any further, let’s clarify what I mean by “brainstorming”. The word has two meanings. The first is as a generic term for generating ideas. This is how it is most widely used. But within creativity circles, brainstorming is a specific process devised by Alex Osborn, an advertising chap, in the 1940s. He later wrote about brainstorming in several books on creativity. He also teamed up with Sidney Parnes to develop a more sophisticated method, based on brainstorming, known as creative problem solving (CPS), which has been institutionalized and is revered at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College.
Surprisingly, when you consider that creativity is all about trying out new ideas and embracing change, brainstorming has remained largely unchanged in the 70 years since Mr Osborn invented it based on a series of assumptions that he made while running his ad agency! This is even more surprising when you consider that his assumptions have largely been proven wrong over the years. Nevertheless, many people cling to brainstorming as an unchangeable technique that must be followed simply because it has been around for so many years!
Three Intrinsic Flaws
Brainstorming has three serious flaws that prevent it from being effective as an idea generation method:
- people shouting out ideas is less creative than people writing ideas individually
- reserving judgment and prohibiting criticism reduce creativity
- After the idea generation bit, decision makers tend to choose moderately creative ideas over highly creative ideas.
The first flaw is easily resolved. The second two are fatal. All three of these flaws have been found and tested through clinical research by individuals and groups that have nothing to gain by finding flaw with brainstorming. Let's look at the research.
Flaw 1: The Group Thing Does Not Quite Work
In 1958, a team at Yale University was one of the first to test brainstorming. They put together several groups to generate ideas. Half of the groups followed Osborn's method and collaborated to generate ideas. The other half were nominal groups in which each member simply wrote down ideas without interacting with others in the group. What Yale University found was that the nominal groups (ie. the individuals) consistently had more ideas and more creative ideas than the brainstorming groups. All groups followed the same rules and focused on the same problem statement. The only difference was whether they worked as a collaborative group or as individuals.
Subsequent tests have confirmed Yale’s findings. Fortunately, however, for the brainstorm facilitator, it is not a difficult problem to get around. For instance, you can have people write down ideas individually for a period before putting them in a group to combine ideas and generate more.
Flaw 2: Criticism Enhances Creativity
The fundamental rule of brainstorming, of course, is that there is to be no criticism of ideas. Criticizing ideas will hurt people’s feelings and inhibit them, preventing them from sharing creative ideas. This assumption sounds really good. But it is also flawed.
Researchers at University of California, Berkeley set up some brainstorming teams in three sets. One set was given no instructions. The second set was given traditional brainstorming instructions and specifically told not to criticize ideas during idea generation. The third set was given brainstorming instructions with difference. This set was specifically encouraged to criticize ideas during the idea generation phase. Most of the teams in the set given traditional brainstorming instructions moderately outperformed the teams in the set given no instructions. But the teams specifically told to criticize ideas came up with the best results by far!
This bit of research appalls most brainstorm facilitators and lovers of CPS because it breaks the presumed fundamental rule of ideation: criticism is prohibited. Any hint of criticism, it is assumed, will cause participants to clam up, become inhibited and stop sharing ideas. But, this has always been nothing more than an assumption. As the Berkeley research has shown, it is wrong. Criticism actually enhances to level of creativity (note to brainstorm facilitators: if you doubt this, I have a suggestion: give it a try and see what happens if you encourage people to criticize ideas during ideation.)
Frankly, I am not surprised by the results. When I think about my artistic collaborations, our idea generation process was never like traditional brainstorming. It was an argumentative debate. Ideas were criticized, discussed in detail and thrown away if they were not good enough. Seemingly silly ideas, once defended became core ideas to the project.
I have also discussed issue of criticism during ideation with scientists working on cutting edge research. Their response has been the same. When collaborating on creative projects, criticism, debate and discussion is the norm.
Flaw 3: People Do Not Like Creative Ideas
Because the aim of brainstorming is to produce a large number of ideas, the result of any brainstorm will be a long list of ideas that someone needs to sort through in order to identify which idea or ideas to implement. The brainstorming method does not address this. CPS is vague. In practice, there is often a vote for the “best ideas” with a senior manager being given a shortlist from which to make a decision. In some instances, a professional will organize ideas and provide a report to the decision maker. In any event, a manager will need to make a choice about which idea to implement—or choose to do nothing.
Now, you might think that the manager requesting a brainstorm to generate creative ideas will choose one of the more creative ideas to implement. After all, she presumably believes brainstorming is a good creativity technique.
If so, you would be wrong! In spite of what they say, people do not like creative ideas very much. Indeed, research at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated that people are biased against creative ideas. Indeed, given a choice of ideas to implement, most people will select relatively conventional ideas over more creative ideas. This is doubly true if evaluation criteria are vague (such as “choose the best idea”). So, even if this manager claims to be enthusiastic about creativity, even if she authorized a brainstorm in order to generate creative ideas, she will most likely choose a conventional idea over an unconventional idea for implementation.
Sadly, in my own experience, this is the case. Most business brainstorms generate a number of what I will call “buzzword ideas”. These are ideas that incorporate the latest internal jargon or buzzwords. As a result, they tend to be conventional ideas dressed up in trendy language. Moreover, if any idea is selected at the end of a brainstorm, in my experience, it will be a buzzword idea.
In fact, I’ve found that a lot of brainstorms result in a long list of ideas and no further action. However, this is not so much an intrinsic flaw in brainstorming as lack of planning on the part of the person organizing the brainstorm.
In spite of the criticism of brainstorming and CPS, many creativity facilitators continue to use variations of these methods, preferring to criticize the criticism rather than explore alternative approaches. And many such facilitators manage to overcome some of the weaknesses of brainstorming. However, I liken this to a battered, 20 year old sports car with 200,000 KM on the odometer. A good mechanic can keep the car working well enough to drive it. But such a car will never perform as well as a new sports car incorporating new technology.
That said, it is important to understand that although brainstorming is not an effective means of generating truly creative ideas, it does have benefits. It is a great team building exercise. It’s marvelous for positive reinforcement (where else in today’s busy workplace can you be guaranteed not to be criticized for a few hours?). And it is good for making people feel they are being innovative. After all, a brainstorm is only judged by how many ideas were generated, not by the quality or eventual implementation of ideas. In creativity, quantity is easy. Quality is far more challenging.
There are a handful of alternatives to brainstorming—though many of them are only slight modifications on brainstorming, introducing a gimmick or two. Moreover, many alternatives retain the flaws of brainstorming, in particular they prohibit the criticism, debate and discussion of ideas; and they aim for quantity of ideas rather than creativity of ideas. Hence, many of these alternatives to brainstorming are still all too likely to result in a long list of mostly conventional ideas from which a conventional idea will be selected. Or worse, no ideas will be chosen at all!
The Birth of Anticonventional Thinking (ACT)
As a result of these flaws in the brainstorming method and most similar collaborative creativity methods, I began trying to develop an alternative approach; an approach that would take into account the research into why brainstorming is not a good method for generating creative ideas. I also looked at how artists, writers and scientists collaborate on projects and current research into how the brain deals with memories and solves problems. The result is anticonventional thinking (ACT). You can learn more about ACT here.